Profile - Fiona Robinson BSc (Eng) PhD, Principal Researcher
2011–present Principal Researcher, Cogent Power Limited (Tata Steel)
2005–2011 Principal Engineer – Strategic Process Development, Tata Strip Products UK
2004–2005 Quality Specialist
2003–2004 Technology Development Engineer
1995–2002 Process Development Engineer
2001/2 Product and Market Development (secondment)
1991–1995 Research Officer PhD Laser Materials Processing, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Liverpool, UK BSc (Eng) Metallurgy and Materials Science, Imperial College, University of London
What made you choose to study metallurgy and materials science?
I really enjoyed science and particularly maths at school, but at university I wanted to study something applied and more practical than a pure science degree. As a child, our next door neighbours were research metallurgists and my father worked in the steel industry so unusually, perhaps, I knew what I was applying for. I knew that I didn’t want to do a repetitive desk job, and I thought metallurgy and materials science would provide variety.
You have progressed through a number of roles at Tata – can you tell us a bit more about this?
My first role was as a research officer in a laboratory, carrying out development projects on metallic coatings and investigating problems originating from production issues or customer complaints. I used some of the investigative, scanning electron microscopy and project management skills learnt during my PhD, while developing new ones and building working relationships within the organisation. It was a good opportunity to learn about the steel industry and spend time in manufacturing areas on secondments before committing to a job change. I chose the R&D function as it was what I considered a safe option moving from university PhD into a research laboratory, rather than straight into a manufacturing environment.
After a few years I felt frustrated by how slow things moved in R&D and decided to move to process technology. Process technology is still stimulating to me as things change every day – from problem solving, improving or using processes differently to accommodate new products, and implementing new technology. Over the years I have tried some conventional management roles, but I find the administrative aspects a distraction from delivering technical work. I much prefer leading technical or research projects where I guide others but also perform the technical work, rather than having my time consumed by bureaucracy. I see my career as a spiral where I have moved through several technical roles, learning and gaining knowledge through training and experience that I take with me to use in my next position. An advantage of working in a large organisation is that there is the possibility of moving to different positions as they become available.
What does your current role involve?
My focus is on process and product development of high permeability low loss grain-oriented electrical steels primarily used in transformers. I manage research projects that include internal R&D, university input, running large scale trials in the manufacturing environment and defining the recipe to achieve required magnetic properties. I am a participant on Welsh Crucible 2012, a programme of professional and personal development for researchers run by the universities of Wales; one of only two participants not based in a university. This has been an excellent opportunity to meet researchers from other disciplines, find out about future collaborative research opportunities and increase my confidence about public engagement.
What do you think are the challenges facing the industry in the next few years?
Remaining competitive and viable in the face of rising raw materials and energy costs, legislation and CO2 abatement, together with the threat posed by new entrants with lower conversion costs. Succession planning is an issue because many experienced people are approaching retirement. There were gaps in recruiting during previous recessions and now it is difficult to attract and retain young people.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?
I think having the confidence to make the decision to move from the R&D environment to process technology based in the hot-rolling mill, working closer to the production process. I stood my ground when my very traditional male R&D manager tried to convince me that the working conditions would be terrible. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the work in R&D, but I was too impatient to cope with the slow pace, and wanted to work on the processes and their impact on the product attributes, not just products.
What do you see yourself doing next?
In the immediate future I intend to expand my knowledge of electrical steels and their magnetic properties alongside completing my MBA in Technology Management. Then I would like to lead (rather than manage) a larger research group involving internal and external collaborative research, with more control over the technology strategy and programme (content and budget) than I currently have. Hopefully this will be somewhere in my organisation but if not, the Technology Management MBA will hopefully provide evidence of competence that is externally recognised to complement my other qualifications, skills and experience.
You work with young people and early career scientists to offer support and encouragement in furthering their careers in research. How did you become involved in this?
Shortly after I started my first job, British Steel started the Engineering Doctorate Scheme and, as I had a PhD, I was asked to be an industrial supervisor to one of these researchers and also a sandwich-year student. Over the last 20 years I have managed, mentored and supervised early career scientists, and I think this is perhaps one way that men and women in the steel industry differ. After all the effort of recruiting young graduates or research students, they often left after a couple of years on the graduate scheme or on completion of their doctorate, many to teaching or careers outside engineering. Coming to the steel industry straight after being an undergraduate is daunting, and although they are intellectually capable there are many other skills and working relationships that must be forged to succeed either in a graduate job or doctorate project. Frequently it is these seemingly trivial things that cause young engineers to become disheartened and leave, so I try to help resolve some of these issues in the hope that a few will become passionate about steel and want to stay.
How important do you think this is to encourage young people to follow a career in engineering and materials science?
It’s critical, as there is a severe shortage of people with these skills in the UK and it will only get worse as many experienced engineers approach retirement. Engineering and materials science offers mentally stimulating, challenging and varied career opportunities that should be promoted, particularly to young women who may be less aware of the opportunities. Often women are not as confident or comfortable with self-promotion so can be easily convinced they are not capable of pursuing an engineering career. I have been in continuous employment through several economic downturns – this should also be a deciding factor for young people when selecting a career.
Would you recommend other engineers/ materials scientists to get involved?
Yes – something active needs to be done to engage young people and make them passionate about a career in engineering. A passive approach won’t work. Experienced engineers and materials scientists need to pass on their knowledge and skills to young people while they are working – once they have retired, almost everything is lost because trawling through someone’s ancient files is of limited benefit to a new engineer. It is very rewarding when you coach a young person who then shows real interest in a project and chooses a career in engineering or materials science.